Investigators at the office of outgoing President Abdullah Gül have identified several senior officials in the government as the culprits who have been hurling insulting remarks at the president, all masked under the anonymous accounts of social media users.
Yet the exposé did not result in any dismissal or punishment. On the contrary, the smear campaign against President Gül has increased further, leading to a conclusion that they are being protected by the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The negative campaign against Gül intensified on Twitter on Monday, when Gül announced that he will return to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), signaling that he may take over the leadership of the party and of the government as well.
Gül's plan to return to the party rather than retiring from politics obviously upset Erdoğan, who wants to engineer a new party design before his departure for the presidential office at the end of this month so that he can still control the government and the ruling party from a distance.
The insulting messages on Twitter, which have grown more bellicose, were shared on Tuesday night as Erdoğan was attending the farewell reception hosted by Gül and making it appear as if it was business as usual between the one-time political allies.
Several anonymous users who are known to have been attacking Erdoğan's opponents fiercely slammed Gül for inviting Abdullah Bozkurt, the bureau-chief of Today's Zaman, and Abdullah Abdülkadiroğlu, the bureau-chief of Samanyolu TV, to the reception. Both journalists were called "enemies of the state," and "traitors," who should be banned from attending a state reception.
Users also emphasized that Gül has no place within the AK party, as they accused Gül of siding with the so-called "parallel structure," a derogatory term Erdoğan often invokes to scapegoat the Hizmet movement, which is inspired by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen -- who is critical of the government on the issues of corruption, violations of fundamental rights and weakening of the rule of law in addition to government accountability.
Commenting on the smear campaign, Bozkurt said: "It is very obvious that these people who mask their real identities want to discredit the outgoing president by using the names of critical and independent journalists. They are afraid that Gül, one of the key founding members of the ruling party, may take over the party from the grip of the increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan."
Bozkurt also emphasized, "These users have been committing hate speech and hate crimes on social media."
There is a familiar pattern employed in every attack orchestrated by the fake users. The attacks appear to be conducted by an unusually large number of people who have surprisingly low follower counts. They often curse, swear and use foul language. The torrent of abuse apparently came from a single source, considering the time interval, characteristics of the profiles and the common words used in the attacks.
The leading accounts that attack Erdoğan's critics and opponents include some of the ruling AK Party's deputies and members of the cabinet who do not toe the line with Erdoğan, and includes the users @esatce, @AKKULIS, @rkopar, @detroitlikizil, @Kuscuesref, @_beyefendi, @GizliArsiv and @WUattack.
The above list is by no means an exhaustive one but these names stand out from the crowd in terms of viciousness of their attacks on the prime minister's opponents and the way their abusive messages were quickly circulated by Erdoğan's close aides and several government ministers.
It iscinteresting that journalists are particularly targeted by these users as well as Erdoğan's aides. Aydın Ünal, who identifies himself as the Prime Ministry's chief council, is particularly noticeable in his insult and smear campaign against journalists. In one, Ünal promoted a Twitter account @WUattack, which is responsible for sharing hard-to-believe conspiracy theories about the alleged shady connections of journalists and describing journalists who are critical of the government as traitors and highlighting them as targets.
In another tweet, mentioning a Zaman journalist, Ünal accused him and his colleagues of being "servants of Israel."
Mustafa Varank and Şenol Kazancı, who both are reportedly in charge of fake Twitter accounts, promote any campaign that benefits Erdoğan in the social media.
Taraf reported in December that the AK Party set up a team to conduct psychological warfare undermining the credibility of the corruption claims. The team is composed of Varank, Ertan Aydın and Aydın Ünal and all of Erdoğan's aides, and is headed by the Culture and Tourism Minister Ömer Çelik.
The fabricated story that accused the US ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone of remarks regarding a major graft probe on Dec. 21, 2013 was reportedly the work of this team.
It appears the leading fake users have easy access to Erdoğan as well.
For example, Merve Şebnem, who writes for pro-government daily Yeni Şafak, posted a tweet on Oct. 16, 2013, saying that @esatce, @AKKULIS, @rkopar and @detroitlikizil are in Diyarbakır. These users posted photos from Erdoğan's program. Many questioned how they were invited to Erdoğan's program while they constantly insult journalists on Twitter.
In February, several Twitter users, known for their closeness to the AK Party government, circulated a list of "to-be-arrested" journalists. Those users have been naming journalists and claiming that they would be arrested soon. Among them are Nazlı Ilıcak, Emre Uslu, Cüneyt Özdemir, Mehmet Baransu, Cengiz Çandar, Ahmet Hakan Coşkun, Ekrem Dumanlı, Hasan Cemal and Ali Bulaç.
The messages came against the background of criminal complaints filed by Erdoğan against Today's Zaman Editor-in-Chief Bülent Keneş, Zaman Deputy Editor-in-Chief Mehmet Kamış and Today's Zaman columnist Emre Uslu, in an apparent move to intimidate the media outlets and individuals affiliated with Hizmet. Journalist associations condemned the complaints, saying they were aimed at intimidating critics of the government.
Earlier this month, a Twitter account named "Gizli Arşiv" (Secret Archive) listed a group of journalists and prosecutors to be detained as part of an alleged approaching operation.
"A new operation is coming. May it be beneficial [for the country]," the user announced, days after over 100 police officers who investigated corruption in Erdoğan government were detained as part of what the opposition described as a witch hunt and politically-motivated revenge operation.
The lawyers of five police officers who were detained in politically-motivated investigation, whose names were also cited by the Twitter user, have submitted a complaint about the account.
Gezi and corruption probe were turning points
Erdoğan government's sudden love affair with Twitter and other social media networks emerged in December after allegations from corruption investigations that implicated Erdoğan, his family members and close associates made their way onto Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms.
Taraf reported in December that the ruling party mobilized its supporters on social media, particularly on Twitter, to publicly criticize and intimidate anti-government commentators and allegedly set up a special advertising agency to finance its army of 6,000 Twitter users, which some suggest are paid to tweet as ordered.
The number of paid social media users was doubled later according to reports published in Turkish media. These users are being coordinated by the AK Party's social media coordinator's office.
Erdoğan's government was also shaken last year when the Gezi protests of May and June occured, where thousands organized on social media to protest the government across many different provinces.
The AK Party officials scrambled to organize a strong Twitter presence in an effort to lead the conversation on social media and discredit government opponents. Taraf, citing AK Party sources, said the party had to actually hire a large number of people to tweet as ordered when it failed to mobilize the party's grassroots supporters the way it wanted.
The AK Party's controversial use of social media was also taken up in Parliament when Republican People's Party (CHP) deputy Aykan Erdemir submitted a query as to whether the social media users are being paid by taxpayers' money but the questions fell on deaf ears.